Volume 74, Number 29 | November 24 - 30, 2004


Craig Renaud films an Arkansas National Guard soldier on his way from Kuwait to Camp Cooke near Baghdad.

‘Honest film with no political agenda’

Filmmakers from Tribeca studio follow National Guard soldiers to Iraq

By Timothy Lavin

At the beginning of August 2003, Iraq was hardly a tame place, but Americans had reason for optimism. Three months before President Bush declared that major combat operations had ceased, the New York Times was running a series of articles called “After the War,” and if a recent spate of deadly bombings augured more sinister days ahead, the world could still cheer the timely deaths of Saddam Hussein’s piratical sons.

That same month, Craig Renaud learned that the Arkansas National Guard would soon be called to cross the Atlantic and join the war effort. He and his brother Brent, both documentary filmmakers originally from Little Rock, saw an unprecedented opportunity: they hoped to chronicle a full tour of duty for the 39th Infantry Brigade of their state’s National Guard, from the day they received their orders until the day they returned from combat. After some negotiation—the brothers agreed that the films would have no narration and no music except during the credits, among other concessions—the military leadership agreed to embed them.

This resulted in a documentary series called “Off to War,” the third segment of which has just been released. The Renaud brothers have been helping produce documentaries like this for nearly 10 years at Downtown Community Television (DCTV), an organization that promotes public access to media equipment and training on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan. The series is being aired on the Discovery Times Channel, even as the two continue their work, splitting up to capture the lives of both the troops in Iraq and their families home in Arkansas as the war rages.

In the first segment, the brothers follow the lives of several characters from the rural town of Clarksville —ranging in age from 18 to 40 or so—as they receive notice in the mail that their brigade will be called into action.

These are men unused to the military lifestyle; the National Guard requires of its members one weekend a month and two weeks a year of duty and, in the early footage, this shows. The soldiers clearly have a good rapport—many of them have been in the Guard together for 20 or 30 years—but most of them struggle through the initial training regimens.

“The National Guard in these areas is one of the best employers in town,” Brent Renaud explained in a phone interview from Jordan, where he was awaiting re-entry to Iraq. “Most of these guys, their fathers were National Guard, their grandfathers were National Guard, and none of them had been deployed since World War II. So they simply never expected, no more than probably you or I, that they would be over fighting in a war anywhere.”

Most poignantly, the film explores what each of the main characters will be leaving behind: wives (one pregnant), children, livelihoods, church congregations, family farms, long-term dreams. Even so, as they prepare to leave, optimism and patriotism abound. The town holds a rally at the high school football stadium, complete with innumerable Arkansan and American flags, balloons and fireworks. In the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a spokesman for the 39th Infantry Brigade proclaimed around the same time, “This is really something that Arkansans should be proud of.”

“We want to try to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people,” says Brigadier General Ron Chastain, the commander of the 39th, in the film. “We’ll be involved in a full spectrum of operations, from combat to stability and operational support, and of course humanitarian assistance.”

On the day of their departure, the soldiers ready their gear, spray-painting red castles—the sign of the engineers, the unit the Clarksville men represent—on their equipment cases and loading them onto creaking old trucks. Awaiting their transport by bus to Fort Hood, Texas, some of the men gather in the parking lot to sing “God Bless the USA.” The buses roll down streets lined with flags, well-wishers and waving, tearful family members.

The second segment of “Off to War” follows the men through more intensive training in Fort Hood and Fort Polk, Louisiana. The gravity of their situation begins to set in, both for the soldiers and their families.

“What’s going on over there right now I don’t even understand really,” says Matt Hertlein, a charismatic teenager who provides one of the film’s most vivid stories. “Obviously the government has their reasons that they want us over there, but my wheel’s turning and I don’t really see why.”

There’s a prevailing sense among the Guardsmen that the invasion of Iraq will avenge the 9/11 attacks—a sentiment that the filmmakers have caught some rebukes for portraying. “In every screening we do, there’s people who think we have a political agenda,” said Craig Renaud in an interview from Arkansas, where he was filming families on Election Day. “But from the beginning we have approached this really trying not to be political. We’ve done our best to sort of be a mirror to them. They’ve learned and changed along with everyone else. But at the time, we were capturing how these guys felt.”

Indeed, though the film sometimes suggests ignorance or anger among the troops, the sense is not of a partisan attack; rather it reflects honesty among a confused group of men, many quite young, who are terrified and perhaps feel unprepared for the war they’re about to enter.

Lack of preparation develops as an important theme in the second film, especially as the Guardsmen arrive in Kuwait. For the trek across the Iraqi desert to Camp Cooke, north of Baghdad, the troops ride in unprotected Vietnam-era trucks prone to breakdowns. They fabricate armor for the vehicles using scrap metal, sandbags and old bulletproof vests to protect them from the guns and rocket-propelled grenades of the insurgency.

“The Renaud brothers were the first to document that a lot of our troops are using unarmored vehicles,” said Jon Alpert, a veteran journalist who founded DCTV and is now its co-director. “And it seemed to have entered into the public debate and I think that that’s really important—that’s a contribution of this film.”

As their journey into the war continues, the Arkansans’ disorientation grows. “The only thing I shoot on the turkey farm is skunks and stray dogs,” said Sergeant Ronald Jackson, a thoughtful man who has been forced to leave his wife behind to run his farm. At home, as the families watch casualties mount and mundane duties hammer home every day how much husbands and sons are missed, they struggle to accept the inevitable. Matt Hertlein’s mother can’t discuss the war without breaking into sobs. Jackson’s wife discusses, pragmatically, the idea that she may have to sell her husband’s farm; it’s too much for her and her young children to maintain alone.

The third segment, which was screened to much acclaim at DCTV’s newly renovated headquarters last week, is the starkest to date. The Guardsmen find themselves captive, more or less, on their base. They’re now required to wear armor at all times to protect them from daily mortar attacks launched over the base’s walls. Several have been killed. Outside, as the insurgency burgeons, conditions grow nearly unmanageable. “All hell has broken loose,” remarks one soldier, “and it’s right outside that gate.”

Every mission they attempt—whether building a bridge or arresting suspected terrorists in the dark of night—involves considerable risk. They trust no one among the Iraqis and find themselves the targets of considerable derision—and also bullets and grenades. They can put their engineering skills to little use and find themselves forced into roles, such as guarding prisoners, for which they have no training. This paints a dire picture.

“It would be great if there was good news coming out of Iraq,” said Alpert, who trained both brothers at DCTV for many years. “But there isn’t a lot of good news coming out of Iraq. That’s the reality over there. It’s really unpleasant.”

Despite the best attempts of the audience at the screening, the Renaud brothers declined to elaborate on their political sympathies or their opinion of the war effort. In part, this reflected a fear that the army could revoke their permission to be embedded at any moment; part of the reason they were granted such unrestricted access in the first place was that the army leadership trusted that they had no political argument in mind for the film.

In part though, the brothers were probably being honest. As they said of the soldiers they were filming, “Politics don’t matter to a lot of these guys. They want to survive.” One suspects something similar of the Renauds—their interest in the war transcends politics to a certain extent; they’re interested in people. Both brothers are soft-spoken and self-assured. They are both in their early thirties and look younger. And both are possessed of an earnestness that immediately suggests they should be taken seriously. This demeanor, combined with their film experience and Arkansan background, has opened many doors in this project.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the Renauds’ ability to capture the same events from two perspectives, in both Iraq and Arkansas. They’re able, for instance, to record both ends of a phone conversation—both the soldier in the field and his family at home, juxtaposing their reactions (a shot of Hertlein rolling his eyes as his mom weeps during his Mother’s Day call is particularly apt).

The families have been very receptive to having the Renauds follow them around, partially because the films have helped explain their predicament to outsiders. The troops have also appreciated the project. Hertlein and his best friend in the Guard, Tommy Erp, discovered while home on R and R that they’re now minor celebrities in Arkansas. “We went to their high school for them to speak,” said Brent Renaud. “And it was like the Beatles were coming, with the girls yelling and everything.”

The films suffer from a lack of historical context—even just dates would help frame the action—but the Renauds provide a deeply personal account of the costs of war, something clearly lacking in most coverage by embedded journalists. And by letting the soldiers tell their stories directly—without interpretation or judgment—the films tell an unrelentingly honest story. “I really don’t want to be here, I miss my family,” says Sergeant Joe Betts, a minister from Clarksville, in the film. “I don’t guess you could ever get ready for this. But you gotta go.”

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